Buyer's guide to mountain bike tires

Tires make a big difference to the ride character of your bike. Here's the the lowdown...

Your tires make a massive difference to the character and ride of your bike. We bring you the lowdown...

Tube or no tube? Flat is the question

Traditional tires use an inner tube to keep them inflated, but how do 'tubeless' tires work?

Tubeless tires ditch the tube in favor of a tire that's specifically designed to be airtight, either though the use of an additional layer of rubber, or through the use of a latex-based sealant.

Mavic's UST (Universal Systeme Tubeless) system uses thick side-walled tyre locking into a specific sealed-bed UST rim. The advantage is an airtight seal with or without a sealant liquid inside, and very stable, pinch puncture-resistant, low pressure performance. The downsides are more expensive tires that are also heavier.

Most mountian bike tires on the market today use some sort of "tubeless compatible" system. These tires use a tubeless bead but require sealant in order to make them airtight. They also require rim tape to seal the spoke holes off. The benefit of this system is that it is lighter than a full UST system and offers the user a wide variety of tyre choices. The downside is that there is not established standard between the various tire and rim manufacturers, so some rim and tire combinations make work better than others. Even so, this is the most common tubeless option you'll encounter.

Interested in learning more about tubeless conversions? Check out our guide to setting your bike up tubeless.

Light vs Heavy

  • Weight a minute

Don't forget the big effect of weight on the agility and acceleration of your bike. Light tires are much easier to spin up to speed, change direction with and even stop, so make sense for cross-country use.

Heavier tires are generally thicker, which means they resist punctures and pinch flats better and are less likely to flop and roll off at low pressures. Heavier tires also increase the gyroscopic effect of the wheel, making the bike more stable on the ground or in the air.

At the really heavy end, reinforced-carcass DH tires are designed to be run at super low sub-20psi pressures without popping or tearing off the rim, and rely on gravity help to get their kilo-plus weight moving.

Size choice

  • Feel the width

There's a massive range of tyre widths available from 1.5 to massive 5.0in fat bike tires. The majority of mountain bikers run tires in the 2.2 to 2.5in range. This is because they offer good protection and grip for more aggressive riding. Tires narrower than this offer less cushioning and have less 'footprint' to grip with. Pinch flat resistance is lower unless run at higher pressures too. They are lighter and roll faster though, and often cut through sticky mud and gloop better.

Square-profile tires have more edging grip but are harder to lurch into corners. Rounder tires roll more easily into corners and slide more predictably. Edge grip isn't as aggressive though.

Speed vs Traction

  • Have both?

It's slightly simplistic but true that tires that grip well because of sticky compounds and tall square-edged knobs drag more than those that don't.

But within this generalisation there are some notable tires that add speed by the slight sloping of tread patterns, multiple tread compounds or use of a 'fast' carcass. Conversely, some tires that have barely any tread actually bite as well as some mid-knob rubber.


  • Shoulder - The edge tread that provides off-camber and cornering grip.
  • Sidewall - The bare side of the tyre. Double or 'two ply' on DH tires for extra stability and pinch flat resistance; airtight on UST tires for tubeless running.
  • Bead - The steel wire or Kevlar cord at the base of the sidewall that locks into the rim lip to keep the tyre in place. Kevlar or Aramid fibre beads are lighter and let the tyre fold, but are more expensive and the tyre is more likely to fall off if flatted.
  • Carcass - The fabric body of the tyre made from overlapping weaves. A more supple carcass enables the tyre to deform around lumps for extra grip but is less stable at low pressures. A reinforced carcass is more protective and less wobbly at low pressures but heavier and less comfortable. Lighter carcasses are more likely to get point punctures too.
  • TPI - The number of threads per inch in the carcass. Tires with more threads are generally higher quality with a more subtle feel, but companies like Tioga use a smaller quantity of fatter threads.
  • Multi-compound - Tires using different rubber compounds. Dual compounds are normally harder in the centre or underneath for fast rolling and long life, but soft on the shoulders for cornering grip. Schwalbe and Maxxis now do triple-compound tires too.
  • Durometer - The softness rating of the rubber; 70 is hard, 60 medium and anything below 50 soft. The softer the tyre the stickier it is on rocks and so on, but the faster it will wear out.
This article was published by BikeRadar, the world's leading source of bike reviews, gear reviews, riding advice and route information
  • Discipline: Road, Mountain, Urban, Womens
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